Recognising the emotions of our friends

Recognising the emotions of our friends is a complex process that your young child is only beginning to come to grips with.  Understanding the emotions of another person simply from the actions we can observe is all about empathy.  And while your child may feel deeply wounded by the actions and comments of others from a very young age, their empathy is not well developed until they are around seven years old.

The complex process of feeling empathy for our friends

Your child’s emotions and behaviours will be feeding off the emotions and behaviours that they are surrounded by.  While that can be a hugely positive thing when playing with a group of close friends, it can also seem to disintegrate in an instant.  But don’t forget, recognising the emotions of our friends is a difficult thing to achieve when you are not yet able to manage the complex processes going on. 

Empathy involves recognising the emotions of our friends simply  through the behaviours they are displaying.  To do this, we need to imagine how that person is feeling ourselves.  And then, be driven to respond in a compassionate way.  Once your child is more experienced with these steps, they will be better able to handle difficult social encounters.  And will still be able to recognise and manage their emotions, even when emotions may be running high.  All of which are key skills when managing the important relationships in their life.

Empathy is a difficult concept to grasp; it needs to be seen, experienced and managed before it can establish effectively

Although empathy will not be well developed in your child until they are around seven years of age, early signs are visible from birth.  So, there is much you can do to help support its development.

When children witnesses someone experiencing an emotion, they have similar patterns of brain activity as when they experience that emotion for themselves.  From just a few days old, you will see your baby become visibly upset when they hear the cry of other babies.  But knowing how to act in response to these emotions requires a whole bunch of mature skills,  

Imagining the feelings of another person and responding in a compassionate way, means letting go of the egocentric motivations of the younger years. 

Your child will learn to recognise and understand the emotions being displayed by others.  And they will, in time, use this to manage their own behaviours.  But this takes some very mature processes.

So, help them to understand their emotions and what is driving their behaviours, as they see them for what they are.  But don’t expect too much from your child and give them tonnes of opportunities to practise through their play.

Equipped with these abilities they are in a far better position to form and maintain healthy relationships

In studies, females typically score higher than males when asked how empathetic they are.  However, electrical activity in the brain and physiological responses in the body show there are no biological differences.  This suggests that, although males are as empathetic as females, they do not tend to recognise or admit it. 

In a culture that may be suggesting empathy is not a masculine trait, help both your boys and girls to see themselves as compassionate.  Surround them with strong and caring role models, regardless of their gender. And help them to see that compassion is is a desirable quality in everyone. 

This session is taken from our course: The Secure Child

Dr Kathryn Peckham is an Early Childhood Consultant, author and researcher and the founder of Nurturing Childhoods.  Providing all the knowledge, understanding and support you need to nurture your growing child.


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